The Times West Virginian

West Virginia

December 8, 2013

Gee wants to help WVU as interim president

CHARLESTON — E. Gordon Gee is eager to put his 2 cents in at West Virginia University, even though his second stint leading the school is expected to be short.

The former Ohio State University president will only be in Morgantown for about six months starting in January before a permanent successor is named. During that span, he plans to roll up his sleeves and get things done, just the way he did three decades ago as WVU’s president.

“I just don’t like the word interim. I think it signifies ‘seat warmer,”’ Gee told The Associated Press in an interview Friday after his appointment was announced. “I’m a guy who likes to get in and get to work and make a difference as much as I can.”

A lot has changed since Gee became dean of WVU’s law school in 1979, the year before the university’s current football stadium opened. In 1981, he began the first of his seven stints as the leader of a major university, serving as West Virginia’s president until 1985, when he left for a similar job at Colorado.

Around the time of his first presidency, Gee ignored faculty warnings to dress the role and adopted what would become his signature style: pressed suits, suspenders, horn-rimmed glasses and bow ties, seemingly a new one every day.

“This is a place that gave me my start some 33 years ago. I was 36 at the time,” Gee said. “The people of West Virginia took a real risk on appointing someone that age to be the president of a university. And so I’ve always had a very close relationship to the institution and great affection for its people.”

During his first stint in Morgantown, the incorporation of WVU Hospitals led to the construction of Ruby Memorial Hospital on campus. The WVU Research Corp. was established and the WVU Foundation was restructured. Among the facilities built during his tenure were the College of Business and Economics and the College of Engineering and Mineral Resources.

The opportunity to return came after WVU President Jim Clements announced last month that he’ll become president of Clemson University.

During Clements’ term that began in 2009, WVU’s Board of Governors endorsed the university’s vision for the year 2020 that included strengthening academic programs and expanding student diversity. The university is in the midst of nearly $1 billion in construction projects on campus, its university health system and student housing.

Gee said getting much done in six months at WVU poses a big challenge and he plans to develop a strategy to do that.

“It would be much more difficult if this was an institution totally unfamiliar to me,” he said.

He last set foot on WVU’s campus last year and plans to return Tuesday for an initial welcome. He said there’s no major academic initiatives he can identify and that he hasn’t had the chance yet to talk to Clements, whose doesn’t start in Clemson until January.

“I know he’s developed a very strong strategic plan and they have very good people in place so I’m certain that they’ve got ... a plan moving forward,” Gee said. “My goal would be of course to make sure their momentum continues and even increases.”

Gee served two different stints as Ohio State’s president before retiring last summer after remarks he made about Roman Catholics and Southeastern Conference schools were made public.

During his time in Columbus, Ohio, Gee stumbled through a series of verbal missteps that prompted him to issue subsequent apologies. Even when he announced his retirement, he quipped at a hastily called news conference, “I’ve only got a month to ruin the university. I’ve got to get at it.”

Reaction to Gee’s appointment from WVU supporters on social media ranged from an open-arms welcome to disgust. University leaders who approached Gee about the job were glad to tap into his passion and knowledge of WVU.

“He brings a wealth of experience that will help him continue the very positive trajectory the university is on,” Clements said.

By next summer, Gee will return to Columbus. He said he’s turned down college offers elsewhere to become a permanent president because he’s committed to continuing work on existing projects at Ohio State. And he said he’ll stay out of the search for a permanent OSU president.

“I think it’s very important that the old guy not try to influence the trustees,” he said. “I think it’s very important for me to do my work and move forward and let them do their work.”

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